This week, the staff of AllCardinals breaks down each positional group as the Arizona Cardinals begin training camp at State Farm Stadium. In this first look, we evaluate the offensive line as a unit.
PROJECTED STARTERS: LT D. Humphries, LG Justin Pugh, C Rodney Hudson, RG Justin Murray, RT Kelvin Beachum
BACKUPS: G Brian Winters, T/G Josh Jones, G/C Max Garcia, C Michal Menet
ON THE BUBBLE/PRACTICE SQUAD: T Josh Miles, G Shaq Calhoun, G Sean Harlow, G Koda Martin, T/G Brandon Bowen
Historically speaking, the Arizona Cardinals haven't been known to have solidified blocking up front. That may change in 2021, however, as the team has shown consistent efforts to improve the trenches in hopes for ultimate protection of quarterback Kyler Murray.
The shiny new toy for run game coordinator and offensive line coach Sean Kugler? Center Rodney Hudson, who was acquired via trade from the Las Vegas Raiders that also included a seventh-round selection in exchange for Arizona's third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Despite turning 32 a few weeks ago, Hudson looks to anchor the offensive line and provide a veteran presence that has been missing at the position for years. The three-time Pro Bowler was ranked as the best center in the league recently by Pro Football Focus, upgrading Arizona's interior immediately upon his arrival.
With two guard spots next to Hudson, we already know who will be lining up to Hudson's left side, as veteran Justin Pugh enters his fourth season in Arizona and ninth overall in the NFL. Pugh restructured his deal this offseason to stay with the Cardinals, and with a track record that has proven mostly reliable in his last two seasons, Arizona wont have any worries about two-thirds of their interior.
The right guard spot will be a close one to monitor over the course of training camp and preseason, as the spot occupying Hudson's right side is essentially the only position widely available for debate.
The recently signed Brian Winters figures to put his talents in the running for the starting right guard position. However, Winters' recent one season stint with the Buffalo Bills in which he was benched near the end of 2020 gives us the impression that the starting gig isn't exactly locked in Fort Knox.
Perhaps a change of scenery will work for who many believe was the weak link in Buffalo's offensive line last season. Or perhaps, Justin Murray may be able to get the job done. Murray has been with Arizona since 2019, and played 13 games last season with seven starts after moving inside. Josh Jones and Max Garcia will also be eyeing that opportunity. Jones is one to watch after being drafted in 2020 as a tackle
While one of two guard positions are open for business, both starting tackle jobs are secured. Left tackle D.J. Humphries made tremendous strides last season, while right tackle Kelvin Beachum allowed only three sacks in 2020.
The Cardinals aren't necessarily talked about as having an "elite" offensive line, and prior to the Hudson trade, the team didn't have a ton of name recognition. However, Arizona walks into the 2021 season with one of the most cohesive units in the league.
The Cardinals line ranks third in the league when using ESPN's pass-block win rate stat, with a projected win rate of 63%. The Cardinals saw Murray go down just 29 times last season, finishing just outside of the top 10.
Pass blocking, especially in a Kliff Kingsbury offense, is vital to success, and Arizona appears ready to keep Murray clean and upright at some of the best levels in the league.
If we're nitpicking holes in the trenches, look no further than Arizona's ability to block for ball-carriers. The Cardinals rushing attack isn't bad, but it could use some improvement when compared to pass blocking.
As previously mentioned, the right guard spot being up for grabs isn't encouraging, especially when evaluating all the candidates as a whole. However, our projected starter (Murray) played in enough games last season to have a comfort level when compared to Winters, who does have more experience.
The Amount of Confidence in the Starting Five
Fairly high, in case you couldn't tell. There's more upside/potential for the starting five than bad this season, a welcome musical note to the ears of Cardinals fans who have had to endure less than ideal offensive line play for a long time.
Even with an open competition at right guard, Arizona figures to have a formidable unit that will be ready to take on some of the toughest defenses in the league, including in their own division.
So many factors must go in a team's favor to have the type of offense that Kingsbury and Co. desire.
Murray must make the correct progressions, while also knowing when to ditch the play and make things happen on his own. The running backs (especially James Conner) must remain healthy to provide balance, while pass-catchers outside of DeAndre Hopkins must prove their worth on the opposite side of the field.
However, everything successful in the NFL starts with the offensive line. It's simple yet complex at the same time: If the big men eat, there will be plenty of leftovers for everybody else.
The Cardinals have a unit that can ensure everybody down to the practice squad can eat like kings. They just have to go and prove themselves together.